has a string of bad luck in their lives. Some
have it worse than others. My second ship
was a minesweeper out of Charleston, South
Carolina. It was a
small ship. It was a bad ship to be in if
On the other hand, it was small
enough so that you got a
chance to be closer to your shipmates. I
was the First Lieutenant, which also meant I was the Minesweeping
Officer. I was in charge of the minesweeping gear and
the sailors who manned it.
I had three
very good petty officers in my department.
I had a chief, a first class, and then there was second class Hughes. All were boatswain’s mates,
or bosun, for
was a huge man. For all his size, he had
a good nature and the crew called him “Gentle Ben” behind his back. He knew his job well, and many of our
exercises were successful because his men always performed well. So why was it that he had the string of bad
luck I am about to tell you.
that Bosun Hughes’ wife was recovering from cancer.
That should have been enough for any
man. What happened next was surely not
been scheduled to go to the Mediterranean Sea
fall of 1969. We were going to be gone
for six months. Many of the crew,
including Bosun Hughes, decided to take their families back to their
for this six months. That way they could
be close to family. Hughes
took his family back to Arkansas.
Right before we were
to sail, the deployment was
cancelled. I don’t remember the reason
why. That really wasn’t important. Bosun Hughes got a few days
off to fly to Arkansas,
his family back to Charleston. There was a minesweeping exercise scheduled
for the Monday after he got back. The
exercise was going to last Monday through Friday. We
would be at sea, off the Carolina
coast, for those five days. Hughes
said he would be back in plenty of time. I
really needed him for that exercise.
as the ship cast off I was aware that Hughes
was not aboard ship. As the ship sailed
down the Cooper River
with the three other ships of our squadron towards the sea, I talked to
the crew. None of the crew had seen or
heard from him. While I did need him for
the coming week, I was concerned. Hughes was as reliable as they come.
Something surely must have
happened to him.
first day and night of minesweeping off the coast
were only marred by the darned rain. I
spent hours on deck supervising my men as they streamed gear in the
water. After that I spent another four
watch. When I got off watch I went below
to a wet bunk. Those wooden ships leaked
in any kind of rough weather, or rain. For
a short time I forgot about Hughes.
First thing Tuesday morning a boat came out to our
exercise area and brought us our mail.
The boat did this every morning for those five days. I was sure
that Hughes would
be on that boat. He wasn’t on it. Yes, I was worried.
It just wasn’t like the man to be AWOL like
I had a good crew so we managed without Hughes. The work on the minesweep
deck and long hours
conning the ship took my mind off him.
Every morning though, that boat would bring us our mail. At those
times I couldn’t help but wonder
what had happened to him.
afternoon finally arrived and the four ships
steamed back up the Cooper
to the Navy base. I got in my car and
headed for the house I rented with three other officers. Once
there, I got on my motorcycle and headed
across the Cooper
River Bridge to Mount Pleasant. I had
gotten Hughes’ address and it was on the other
town. I had to ask directions a couple
of times but I arrived at
Hughes’ house about 6:00PM.
Just as I rode up to the house, Hughes
drove into the driveway. He and the
wife, and the three kids looked worn out.
I helped them unload their belongings and we sat down at the kitchen
table where he told me what happened.
The family had been traveling through Tennessee
in the station wagon. They were stopped
at a light when the car engine caught on fire. Hughes got out of the car and
opened the hood. Someone had a fire
extinguisher and someone else threw baking soda on the fire. The
damage was limited to the engine
compartment. No one was hurt.
The car was towed to a garage. That baking soda had gotten down
engine and had done a lot of damage. The
cost to get the car going was just about all the money Hughes
had. The garage said they would put a
rush on the repairs. Huges didn't have much left after the estimated
repairs. He, the
wife and the kids
would have to sleep
in the car.
Three nights they slept in the car. During the day they just sat
around. By the time
realized he had to call the ship, it was Monday morning and the ship
sailed. There was no way to tell anyone
why he missed the ship’s sailing.
The mechanics, with only the money that Hughes
had, finally got the car running. It was
not a very satisfactory job. Hughes
realized that when he had driven about half an hour. The car
overheated and they had to pull over
to let it cool down. For the next four
days, they drove half an hour and then stopped for an hour to let the
cool down. They slept in the car.
time Hughes and his family
arrived home on Friday, they were tired and needed a decent night’s
sleep. They were also out of money. I knew that Hughes was
supposed to have the duty that whole week-end.
I got on the phone and called the ship’s captain. I told him what
had happened to Bosun
Hughes. I got him
to change Hughes’
duty so he didn’t have to go into work until Monday. I also
arranged for him to get paid so he
could have some money.
Today, whenever things don’t go right for me, or my
family, I am reminded of Bosun Hughes and his family. Anything I
have to endure and put up with
can’t compare with what that man went through.
Sparkman March 2, 2003